The Complexity of the Social

By Gilbert, Jeremy | Soundings, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Complexity of the Social


Gilbert, Jeremy, Soundings


Liberalism, collectivism and democracy

The defining conflict of our times appears to some to be that between 'Islam' and 'the West'. It hardly needs spelling out just what a misleading formulation this is: both crudely simplifying and mischievously divisive. Neither 'the West' nor 'Islam' are coherent entities, and the flashpoints between them are as much the symptoms of their respective internal conflicts as anything else. Bush's aim, on one level, was always to beat the Democrats before anything else, just as Hamas's struggle is often against Fatah as much as it is against Israel. But the 'Clash of Civilizations' (the title of a notorious essay by neocon ideologist Samuel Huntington) is a problematic myth not only for these reasons, but also because it obscures a more fundamental conflict for which it is at times a metonym and at other times just a mask. A more fruitful way of understanding most of the antagonisms of contemporary global politics is to see them as manifestations of the conflict between two opposing principles--liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism--each of them manifest in various but increasingly extreme ways, and each of them, carried to its logical conclusion, inimical to the culture of democracy. In this article I look at some contemporary theoretical debates that are helpful in getting to grips with issues of politics and inter-connectedness, in order to try think towards alternatives beyond these two paradigms.

Liberal individualism is, broadly, the most influential and widespread way of thinking about and relating to the world in western economies. It is easy to overlook this because it is opposition to it which is often most noisy. For example, the conservative opposition to gay marriage and adoption, in Europe and the US, claims many headlines, but it is, by definition, the reaction of a losing side: where once no gay people could marry or adopt, today it is increasingly only in conservative enclaves that they cannot. This is a phenomenon partly made possible by the popularisation and radicalisation of the assumptions of oldfashioned Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the most basic such assumption being that the claims of any group on any individual--including the right of that group to tell that individual who they can marry--are minimal, and should be kept so. The idea that we are all, fundamentally, individuals, with only contingent and relatively superficial ties to any other individuals, or to groups, traditions or institutions of any kind, is a very powerful one--and one which is liberating and coruscating in equal measure, depending on who you are and exactly what you want to do. If you want to marry your same-sex partner, or choose your child's school, or take cheap flights to exotic locations, or travel from job to job throughout the EU, and you have the material resources or the skills to enable you to do those things, then liberal individualism is wonderfully empowering. If you want to protect a way of life which depends upon the observance of ancient customs (repressive or otherwise), or to ensure that your local comprehensive contains a social mix rather than becoming either a 'sink' school or a bastion of privilege, or if you want to protect the environmental resources that we depend on collectively but consume privately, then liberal individualism is a rather more problematic paradigm.

Since denunciations of 'bourgeois individualism' have a long and honourable history on the left, it is worth bearing in mind just how much has been gained by the hegemony of this set of ideas. The extraordinary social gains made in much of the world by women and by sexual and ethnic minorities have largely been effected through the implementation of liberal ideals and assumptions. But, by the same token, those gains which such groups have not made despite decades of campaigning have been exactly those which demand a collective assumption of responsibility (decent publicly-funded childcare in the UK, for example). …

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